Before they broke up in 1983, this quartet from Wichita, Kansas rocked furiously, with less brittle/more melodious guitar than the Scottish new wave pop bands Orange Juice and Josef K to whom the Embos were sometimes compared. While John Nichols’ vocals weren’t incredible (Bill Goffrier’s guitar work nearly was), the Embarrassment did convey a promising array of nuances — from wistfulness to sarcasm — and an inquisitive, adventurous way with arrangements. The lyrics vary in quality, but “Don’t Choose the Wrong Song” and “Elizabeth Montgomery’s Face” show budding verbal pithiness; “Wellsville” has a laconic melodic strength. Best of all, most of the debut EP’s five songs grow on you with each listen.
The ambitious Death Travels West is essentially a historical concept album — on several levels — about a voyage. The melodic songs benefit from hot performances; while gleaning the thematic point requires some effort and attention, the charged, raw-edged pop is immediately likable, showing the band’s facility for creating memorable tunes.
The posthumous Retrospective tape is even more impressive, a collection of otherwise unissued studio recordings from 1979 to 1983, plus a side of live ’82–’83 performances. It’s a treasure trove that shows the Embarrassment in command of a wide stylistic range — from catchy pop to gutsy punk — and in possession of broad-based songwriting talent. The best of many fine songs is “Woods of Love,” recorded onstage as a mesmerizing slice of anti-imperialism played with Feeliesque folksy pop-psychedelia.
One side of The Embarrassment LP reissues the debut EP; the other, salvaged from a 1983 live-in-the- studio session, consists of previously unreleased recordings, except for the insidious version of “Age of Five” that was included on Retrospective. Full- bodied, confident one-take performances of “Woods of Love,” “Picture Women” and the pulsing “Rhythm Line” make the Embos’ demise all the more regrettable. After the split, drummer Brent Giessmann joined the Del Fuegos; Goffrier formed Big Dipper.
In late ’88, Goffrier began splitting his time between Big Dipper and the reactivated Embarrassment, who recorded a brilliant album and toured the following year. With great new material and wonderful edgy-pop performances, God Help Us effortlessly picks up where the quartet left off: older and wiser but even better than before. Shuffling and sorting out the ’80s (there are flashes of the Suburbs, Devo, Talking Heads, R.E.M. and others), the group arrives at a stylistic focus that puts starch into the sensitively muscular tunes. While Nichols’ voice exhibits new-found confidence and control, he still possesses a boyish zeal that makes the witty songs even more dynamic.
In 1995, Bar/None released Heyday, a two-disc celebration of the band and its fans. Disc one (The Standards) tosses the classics to the newcomers: from the anthemic “Sex Drive,” the closest the Embos ever came to pop-superstardom, to oft-anthologized rockers like “Jazzface”, “Patio Set” and “Wellsville.” The title of disc two (The Scarcities) is a misnomer, since all of the Embarrassment’s recordings at this point were about as easy to find as honest police officers in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, it presents several previously unreleased (at least officially) recordings. “Sexy Finger Girl” and “Can’t Forget,” as well as a hilarious recording of “Sex Drive/Pants Down,” hail from 1981 sessions, such gems as “Lifespan” and “Sounds of Wasps” were previously available only on the original Sub-Pop cassettes, released in 1981 and 1982. It also boasts live recordings, covers (“Immigrant Song”) and extensive liner notes. Throughout, the Embos blast through their songs with a reckless abandon that borders on slackerish unprofessionalism.
But the Embos were nothing but professional — at the very least, professional pranksters. If the essence of punk rock (and post-modern art in general) is at least half inside joke and half neo-fascist severity, the Embarrassment blurred those lines better than most bands, American or European. Heyday is unquestionably one of the most important documents of the Midwest underground, Blister Pop!, a collection of live recordings from various dates and sessions, is pure fun. Covers of Buddy Holly, the Stooges and Roy Orbison, lost songs like “Play,” and early versions of later classics like “Faith Healer” make this essential listening. Compared to the band’s relatively stodgy official recordings, the energy of their live shows makes Blister Pop! a real thirst-quencher.